Baarka didn’t come to mess around. Born Chloe Quayle, the 26-year-old rapper was a former teenage ice addict who did three stints in jail – during her last, five years ago, she gave birth to her third child.
Now the Malyangapa Barkindji woman has clawed her way back from what she describes as “the pits of hell” and is on the verge of releasing her debut EP, Blak Matriarchy, through Briggs’ Bad Apples Music. She has been celebrated by GQ as “the new matriarch of Australian rap”; and has her face plastered on billboards across New York, Los Angeles and London as part of YouTube’s Black Voices Music Class of 2022. (“I nearly fainted when I saw [pictures of it],” Barkaa says when we meet over Zoom. “The amount of pride that came from my family and my community ... It was a huge honour.”)
Based in south-west Sydney, Barkaa takes her moniker from the Barkindji word for the Darling River. She comes across as warm and humble, with an easy laugh; and chokes up when talking about the pride she has for her “amazing” 11-year-old daughter, Alinta, who frequently performs alongside her.
Barkaa’s incendiary song about police violence, Our Lives Matter, has become the unofficial soundtrack of the Black Lives Matter movement in Australia, and she sees herself, artistically speaking, as a direct descendant of First Nations musicians such as Archie Roach, Tiddas, Stiff Gins, Yothu Yindi and Coloured Stone. Thanks to the paths they paved, she says, her generation “can be unapologetically truthful and unapologetically Blak, and it’s a beautiful thing”.
She has come a long way since her “wakeup call” in the Emu Plains correctional centre at 21, when her son was removed from her three days after his birth. (All three of her kids are now back at home, and she recently celebrated half a decade free from drugs.) It was a different world to the one she inhabits now; earlier this year she played the Sydney Opera House forecourt, the lights of the harbour stretched out before her as she performed her song Bow Down: “They used to look down on me / Look who’s looking up now. Bow down.”
Recalling that moment now, Barkaa smiles: “[Bow Down] is one of my favourite tracks to perform because a lot of people growing up [were like]: ‘Oh you’re not going to be much, you’re just going to be a lowlife, you’re just going to be a junkie, you’re not going to get anywhere, you’re just going to be in and out of prison.’ It’s kind of like: middle fingers up to them – I changed my life around.”
Barkaa’s mother is a member of the stolen generations; her uncle died in police custody. Family tragedy drew her to hip-hop and its themes of “injustice and truth-telling and how it is for minorities in the system”. Even at her lowest point, Barkaa says, “there’s always been something in me that drove me to feel like I’m worthy”, and rapping “was something I was always good at”. As a teenager roaming the streets of Blacktown, Barkaa and her friends would “have these rap battles where we’d get in big groups and just go at it”.
In juvenile detention, she would write “really radical raps” that rattled her supervisors. Later, while uploading bedroom recordings to social media, she caught the attention of Briggs. Her first proper performance was at a Klub Koori event in 2019. “All the Bad Apples boys were there,” she recalls. “It was daunting. I’m so used to just rapping in my room. After I got off the stage I felt this euphoric feeling of ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. This is my purpose.’”
Her songs are politically potent – sampling speeches by Shareena Clanton and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks – and many of her raps are chillingly graphic (White privilege tears on the floor / Suck it up snowflakes / Why you crying for if it’s only a date / It’s a date where all my women got beaten and raped, babies got buried in the sand and they got kicked in the face, she wallops on 22 Clan). But as Barkaa explains: “I just say what’s on my mind.”
As Barkaa’s star began to rise, she was approached by a rival record label that wanted to “polish” her. Barkaa was having none of it. “It was a pretty short convo,” she grins. “I was like: ‘Well, why don’t you want me for me? What’s wrong with what I’m doing? I’m not polished at all. I’m rough around the edges. I say shit, I didn’t grow up prim and proper, I grew up in the system … I don’t want to make music that doesn’t resonate with me.”
She likens the formidable persona she projects in her music to Beyoncé’s alter ego Sasha Fierce, describing Barkaa as “an outlet to express my anger”. “Barkaa is this staunch person that you can’t mess with ... I guess anger has always been a funny feeling to kind of navigate through – especially as a woman.
“When I’m on stage, when I’m Barkaa, I go to work. And then when I come home I get to be with my kids and just chill and be that nurturing mum and tell silly jokes.”
It was the rapper’s “joyous and cheeky and fun” side that producer Jaytee Hazard encouraged her to explore on Blak Matriarchy. He helped transform her song King Brown from “a really big angry diss to my ex with a dark boom bap beat” into a salsa party romp.
Barkaa is chuffed that King Brown is being embraced by women as a revenge anthem (“I feel like we all experience shitty exes,” she laughs). She has dedicated her forthcoming EP “to the powerful Blak women I am blessed to witness and know in my life”.
“Women are the backbone of this country,” Barkaa says. “It’s where I draw my strength – from my mother and my aunties and my daughter and my sisters – and [my music] is just paying homage to them.
“I just want to represent my sisters because we’ve been so underrepresented, especially in hip-hop ... If somebody who can come from ice addiction, jail, motherhood and poverty [can do it, then they] can do it too.”
Barkaa will have plenty of opportunities to represent in 2022, with a calendar that’s filling up with live shows around Australia.
“[And] I hope to go overseas – if they let me in, ’cause of my criminal record,” she says. “A big goal for me would be to be over in London rapping about First Nations people and planting a flag over there and claiming terra nullius. That would be really dope.”